How the majority of female workers are still trapped as low-wage, flexible labour
In the last decade or so, the inclusion of women into Bangladesh’s economy has been hailed as a milestone for gender parity. As more and more women join the workforce and gain financial independence, they are meant to be able to raise their voices and claim their rights. But in a city where the majority of the female workforce is employed in the informal sector and earning wages that barely manages to lift them above the poverty line — is it time for us to rethink how we view working women and their rights in Dhaka?
‘Isn’t it my right to have that peace of living under a roof?’
A middle aged woman ties a few roses together, meticulously folding out the petals and putting the bunches of flowers in a basket at Kawran Bazar, one of the busiest roads in Dhaka.
Rabeya Begum, the fifty odd year old flower seller, has been sitting on that same footpath and preparing her small flower bouquets for the past thirty years. She came to Dhaka in search of a livelihood when her husband died, leaving her to care for their four children on her own.
“I am from Rangpur. When my husband died, his property was divided among his other wife and me, and it was nowhere near enough for our children. So I came to Dhaka, and from the very first day, I started living on the footpaths of Kawran Bazar and selling flowers to passersby,” said Rabeya.
An eight year old girl from her village helps her to run her business, and Rabeya pays her Tk1500 to stay and work with her.
“I also give her three meals a day, even if sometimes profits are so low that I cannot manage food for two. However, I am doing well and that’s as much as anyone can say in this city. All of my children are married and they have a roof over their heads and they are raising my grandchildren, so what else can I expect in this life?”
“There is very little I can think of now — sometime I wish I could live inside a house rather than living on the footpath,” she said. Emphasizing on rights, she asked, “what are the rights of women like me? Can’t I expect a house to live in, to sleep — a beautiful environment to live in before I die? Isn’t it my right to have that peace of living under a roof?”
Rabeya reaps a profit of around Tk50 per bouquet. However at the end of the day, along with her assistant, she earns around Tk250 every day.
‘What is Woman’s Day for?’
Mother of six children Majeda Akter is said to be in her early forties, but she strongly disagrees with her husband about her age. “Do I look like I am forty?” she asked. “No, no, I am still in my thirties. My elder daughter just returned to her in-laws after a marriage ceremony in our house, so how can I be more than forty?”
A pale and thin figure, Majeda usually has a wide smile on her face while she sits at her family tea stall in the Jhilpar area of Gulshan, where she has been working for the past two and a half years. Before that, she used to work as a cook. Later, to help her husband and son at the tea stall, she started working with them.
When asked how much she earns from this business, she said she does not. “The money goes to maintain our daily life, we survive on a day to day basis. I don’t know how much we earn if I count it on a monthly basis or daily basis. But, my presence at the stall during the early morning is definitely a good start of the day. My husband works at the stall till midnight, so he needs help.”
Two of her daughters are now at school and another daughter just got married last month. Her eldest son is a rickshaw puller, another one also works at the tea stall, and the youngest one, who is five years old, follows his sisters to school everyday.
“We have to pay Tk6000 for two rooms and Tk5000 for the tea stall every month,” shared Majeda. “However, there is no one to collect the toll (extort money) here, so I can deal with the stall on my own.”
When trying to start her on a conversation regarding her rights as a woman, Majeda said she had only heard about that term, along with some nutrition advice, when she attended a parents’ day meeting at her daughter’s school. “I cannot remember what they said about rights, but I remember what we should eat to reach the required nutrition which I am not able to manage sometimes. And I don’t know what Women’s Day is for.”
‘I don’t want people to know about my struggle and pity me’
A thirty five year old woman street seller in Banshtola, Shahjadpur has been sitting at the same place where she is seen everyday with a stand full of jewelry and cosmetics for the past five years. However, she has to give up her space to a vegetable seller at noon.
Wishing to be anonymous, she said she is really struggling to keep her life together. “I am really upset with the hardships of life that I am dealing with. I do not want people to know about my struggle to overcome poverty. I have a daughter who just gave the SSC exams. I have to think about her marriage. Now everyone has a mobile phone and access to all sorts of news. I cannot talk about my suffering to other people because I have to think about society and my daughter’s marriage,” said the cosmetics seller.
“But people should know how we are living everyday and how we start a new battle to survive every morning. Who talks about our rights? I used to work as a cleaner in people’s houses. Now I have to take care of my daughter’s education. I cannot leave her and spend an entire day at a job because I worry about her safety, which is why I have started this portable cosmetic shop so that I can be there when my daughter needs me,” she explained.
None of the women interviewed were educated and they all got married at an early age.
More women than men in the informal sector in Bangladesh
Industrial economist and researcher Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), spoke about the context of the informal sector in Bangladesh and emphasized on the relationship between education and being employed in the informal sector.
“The majority of women workers in Bangladesh are employed in the informal sector. In Dhaka, this is a staggering 93.8 percent of female workers. Women are employed in the informal sector more than men, and they are mostly uneducated women who have no formal contracts and no awareness of any of their rights as workers,” said Dr Moazzem.
“There are also other factors like poverty which force them to pursue a job in the informal sector. However, women in the formal sector also do not have access to different benefits because of a lack of knowledge about their rights,” he added.
Emphasising on the recognition of these women’s contributions, he spoke of the urgent need of the formalization of their work, and creating ways to organise women workers and raise awareness on their rights.
According to the Labour Survey Bangladesh 2016—2017, 87.4 percent of working women in urban areas were employed in the informal sector. At the national level, only 8.2 percent of women are engaged in formal employment whereas 17.9 percent of men were working in the formal sector.
The survey also found that the incidence of informal employment was highest in the agriculture sector (95.4 percent of total employment in that sector), industry sector (89.9 percent of total employment in that sector) and service sector (71.8 percent of total employment in that sector).